In advance of the January 8, 2017 closing of Chris Larson: Land Speed Record, we invited Brooklyn-based culture writer Brent Burket to share his reflection on the exhibition. Central to the multimedia installation is a video Larson created, accompanied by newly recorded audio of the drum track from Hüsker Dü’s 1981 album Land Speed Record, that slowly pans over objects retrieved from a fire at the home of Grant Hart, the band’s drummer. Here, Burket focuses on one detail from the video: a section of Hart’s belongings that includes a crumpled American flag, boxes of master tapes, and a copy of the show’s titular album.
“It’s heartbreaking, the things we forget.” —Jonathan Carroll
I wasn’t there in the beginning. I won’t be there in the end.
I started with Hüsker Dü’s fourth album, Flip Your Wig, and rode the wave forward. Yeah, I reached back occasionally, raiding friends’ record collections. But I never owned anything before Flip Your Wig, and until recently I had never made it all the way back to their first LP, Land Speed Record.
That’s OK, though. It hadn’t moved; it was waiting for me. Somebody had bought it awhile ago, probably a second or third pressing. Then, maybe they finally traded it in at a used record store after not having played it for a few years. Maybe they were low on cash and really wanted that new laser-etched Jack White 7″ that was only available on Record Store Day. Maybe. I don’t know. All I know is it’s here with me now, pummeling the inside of my skull like an unforgiving massage, somehow comforting me during these strange and strangely familiar times. It wouldn’t be the first time the band had done that.
The word “mesmeric” often comes up when people discuss Hüsker Dü, and they would get no disagreement from me. But with the later material—the work I knew best—that mesmeric quality came about through the overwhelming sum of the band’s parts (the playing, the composition, the melodies) rather than the more traditional path of repetition and rhythm. I quite happily was not ready for the nearly hardcore onslaught that is Land Speed Record. But you know what Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead said: “A flute will get you there, but a drum will get you there faster.” Land Speed Record spins rhythmically, madly from start to finish. It’s like a prayer wheel, but one that’s being hurled at your head. You either duck or you catch it and let its velocity carry you forward. If I had heard Land Speed Record in 1982 when it came out, I imagine I’d be whizzing by myself right now into the future, still hanging on for dear life. How Grant Hart, planted firmly and wildly in the middle of that velocity, pulled off his parts is a mystery and a miracle.
“So, we want to say that we welcome you and we also welcome your grief and your anger. We don’t want only your cheerful part or your nice part. Behind grief and anger, inside grief and anger there are many marvelous golden eggs.” —Robert Bly
Remember the story about the poor sod who takes up employment with the devil to tend to the cauldrons of the underworld for a year with the promise of a grand payoff at the end? When his time is up, the devil pays him with a sack of straw. Straw! WTF, Beelzebub? Dismayed—but without much bargaining power—the worker ascends back up to terra firma. Fuming and tired by the time he reaches the surface, he looks for a spot to rest for the night. As he’s setting up camp he realizes that at least he has that straw for starting a nice fire. When he puts his hands in the bag to pull out the straw he realizes there’s been a change. The straw has turned into gold.
I think of Hüsker Dü in 1981, keeping those fires burning for Old Scratch on the scorched earth tour they dubbed The Children’s Crusade just before returning to Minneapolis to record the Land Speed Record LP for 300 bucks at the 7th Street Entry. All that energy accumulated and slammed its way to the surface that night, all the while squeezing its way onto four tracks of tape. This is how nuclear power works, but without the half-life problem. Trust me. I’m listening to a bootleg from The Children’s Crusade tour as I write this, and the table has been shaking since I pressed play. No half-life. The music from this period blows up on demand. Capturing the energy at the Entry was capturing the moment when our booted-by-Belial cauldron tender realized that his old master had kept his word. Here was the gold.
So, what happens when the objects responsible for such velocity, so many feelings, so much racket, sit still for a long time? What happens when the house they’re in burns down? What happens when they get moved to a friendly artist’s studio, smelling of smoke and history? What happens to them is us. Well, first it was artist Chris Larson who had the good sense to listen to their history, to follow their seemingly dormant velocity. “Seemingly” being the key word there. It’s like the straw in our fairy tale. It’s just straw until it’s given some new air to breathe, that new air being the artist’s attention, and now ours.
Hüsker Dü was different. They were a cathartic listen like no other. Although they weren’t the most overtly political band, there was an anger that filled the grooves of their records. It helped, in the time of Death Star Ronald Reagan, to know that somebody out there was feeling something, anything. But it was more than just the anger embedded in their music. It was the grief. It bled out of their lives and into the music whether they meant it to or not.
America is bad at grief. As a country, we never grieved the Vietnam War. Bad things happen when you don’t go through grief, when you try to go around it or outrun it. I saw Robert Bly speak not long after the Gulf War started and he mentioned that the government had already made the decision to keep images of the coffins returning from Iraq from being seen by the public. They were denying a nation it’s grief. I was thinking about this when I started to listen to Land Speed Record. And then I looked at the album’s front cover. Most of its real estate is taken up by an image of the coffins coming home from the Vietnam War. When Grant Hart designed that cover, he was paying attention to where we were in 1982 and where we were going.
And now we’re here, focused on these objects and images from the past, replete with everything from nostalgia to the constant threat of their ability to wreak more havoc. Are the lessons they might bear the same as before or have they shifted with the time between their last moment of usefulness and now? It’s probably less didactic than that. As the camera pans slowly across the floor of the artist’s studio, people are going to pick up what falls to them. Is it that cover of Sweet Potato with William S. Burroughs? Is it the broken promise of the auto parts? Is it the instruments? The tools? The Buzzcocks video? Everything is a doorway now.
The doorknob I keep turning opens to the section with the crumpled and filthy American flag sitting atop an overturned couch. Next to that I see the Land Speed Record cover sitting beside piles and boxes of unleashed BASF master tapes. I see in this little corner all the lessons we never seem to learn and the grief we keep sending out to the shed. But I also see the work that was done in difficult times, the work that always needs to be done, the work we need to do right now. A fist, it does form.
Chris Larson put death metal drummer Yousif Del Valle behind a kit to recreate, record, and re-exorcise the rhythm devils of Land Speed Record, beat-for-beat. Death metal is notoriously demanding to play, the drummer’s stool is a hazardous work site all to itself, but the 26 minutes and 36 seconds of Land Speed Record stretched Del Valle’s abilities to the max. During the exhibition’s opening-day talk, Del Valle said that “learning it was a little painful for me.” Hart asked him, “Physically?” One beat, and then sounding as if he was reliving the exhaustion the young drummer replied, “Yeah.”
Time, man. Its beat is relentless. Doesn’t matter if it’s D-beat or blast beat; time won’t let up and it’ll hold you close. And it always takes you back into the pit. Time is punk as fuck.